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Broadband Gives Hotels a Leg Up

by Jim Bray

A historic Canadian hotel chain is moving into cyberspace in a triple pronged strategy aimed at snagging and keeping visitors while enhancing its own operations.

Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, the luxury lodging chain, is making a significant investment in technology that, among other things, will ensure guests can access the Internet at broadband speeds regardless of where they are in the hotel's empire. And that doesn't just mean in any hotel; it means from anywhere in any of Fairmont's properties, including public areas such as lobbies and bars.

The idea is to give Fairmont a leg up in a marketplace that has become even more highly competitive since the September 11th attacks.

"Fairmont will be the only luxury hotel chain in North America to extend high-speed connectivity across its entire portfolio," says Tim Aubrey, Fairmont's vice president of technology. "This give us a tremendous competitive advantage since today's mobile professionals need to be as efficient in their hotel room as the office."

But that's really only one side of the coin. Fairmont is piggybacking its "virtual" guest services onto the broadband network that already links the properties through their Toronto head office, increasing the company's efficiency and flexibility at the same time.

The company uses three separate portals to do this, each portal serving different facets of the business. The external site at, is a straightforward Web site that lets guests book rooms and offers looks at various features and services.

The second portal,, is billed as an "online concierge tool" for hotel guests. It begins with a broadband Internet connection that not only offers Web surfing, but which equips each guest with his or her unique IP address to make possible instant messaging, etc.

When guests log on with their Web browser, it homes onto and from there they can either veer off into normal cyberspace or use the domain to look over hotel information such as the daily special in the restaurant. They'll also be able to make restaurant reservations, book various hotel activities, order theater tickets, or retrieve detailed maps of local neighborhoods.

A partnership with the 10Best Virtual Concierge company also provides guests with supposedly unbiased recommendations on where to eat and what to do locally during their Fairmont stay. It includes "ten best" lists for a variety of lifestyle categories, including directions on how to reach each one. Finally, the Virtual Concierge provides guests with local weather information, and stats and facts about each city.

And each resort's staff can augment these lists by adding their "personal recommendations" for hot places to visit.

Fairmont also plans to offer these services on the rooms' TV's eventually, for the "computer challenged," in much the same way they can now choose movies to watch.

While travelers might find the benefits of having such up-to-date information at their mousepads obvious, Aubrey says the plan works for Fairmont as well, in that it can offer virtually instant information updates to guests without having to constantly reprint expensive in-room folders and booklets. All that's required is for a designated hotel employee to log into the site and use its engine to change a particular item, add a new special, or whatever.

The third portal is the company's Intranet, where hotel employees can access information behind the scenes including such touches as whether or not a particular guest likes having the National Post delivered as opposed to the local paper, or the type of room preferred. This lets Fairmont customize a guest's stay, invisibly and unobtrusively, based on previous experience at any of the company's properties.

The hardware connecting everything is an all-Cisco system that routes everything at broadband speeds through the chain's Toronto headquarters. Aubrey says they chose Cisco because it's the only vendor that offers an end to end solution that lets Fairmont tackle the task on its own terms and without any outside partnerships.

"We're doing it on our own, rather than having a revenue share agreement with a service provider," he says, "And we're using our own in-house Help Desk to offer 24/7 assistance to guests and staff alike. If someone's having a problem, we want them to have a Fairmont solution."

Aubrey says that one of their biggest challenges has been how to support all the protocols a guest might need. "We've worked closely with Cisco to ensure we can host just about any computer, support VPN clients, web casts, chat sessions and the like," he says.

The project is well under way. Meeting rooms and public areas in all 37 of the company's properties in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Bermuda and Barbados are already connected, and Aubrey says the service is being very well received. There's still much to be done, however; the rollout to all the hotels' rooms will take several months more.

What's next? Aubrey envisions using the broadband network to provide enhanced services such as Voice over IP which could dramatically reduce telecom capital and operating costs for hotel and clients alike.

In the meantime, Fairmont feels it is indeed getting that leg up on a competition that, if it offers high speed Internet access at all, doesn't include the value-added features.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006